This Week in Photography: The ICP Online Portfolio Review

 

The sports world went on strike yesterday.

 

(As usual, I’m writing on Thursday.)

It all began when the Milwaukee Bucks, the putative best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, decided at the last minute not to take the court for their impending playoff game against the Orlando Magic.

For those of you unaware, the NBA resumed earlier this summer in a “bubble” at the Disney/ESPN campus outside Orlando, Florida.

The professional basketball league created an artificial community, cut off from the rest of America, with very stringent rules and testing procedures, to allow the players and associated staff to stay safe from Covid-19.

As there are no fans allowed in the games, the entire affair has been arranged for broadcast television, (which is now also done via streaming, for some,) so that the global audience, including millions of Americans, could have “entertainment” to soothe them from this psychotic year.

I’m a fan, and the father of a LeBron James super-fan, so I was glad to see the league resume, and have watched many games.

As the NBA is made up of predominantly Black players, and has a reputation for being the most progressive of the American sports leagues, there were special concessions made for this time of protest and strife.

In particular, the courts are painted with Black Lives Matter, and most of the players wear a slogan on the back of their jerseys, where their names traditionally go, which supports the movement as well.

(For the record, the players were offered a list of pre-approved slogans; they could not just choose whatever they wanted.)

Some players, including union leaders Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley, were concerned that by entertaining America, they were just providing a distraction from the need for social justice, which was more important than a game.

While a few players opted out of the bubble, almost everyone didn’t, but then yesterday, on the heels of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the subsequent rioting in Kenosha, WI, including the murder of protesters by an unhinged 17 year old with a long-gun, the players went on strike.

And athletes from Major League Baseball, the WNBA, and Major League Soccer followed suit.

I was not surprised, as the day before, I’d read quotes from George Hill, a Bucks player, that expressed anger and exasperation at being in an artificial environment, playing ball instead of being out in the world, making a difference.

As of last night, the NBA players took an impromptu vote as to whether to resume the playoffs, and the LA Lakers and LA Clippers voted to cancel the season, though in an official vote today, the players decided to continue with the playoffs.

On Twitter, (where I learned of the resumption 2 minutes after it was announced,) I saw a tweet from a fellow blogger suggesting that marketers, podcasters, and others in different professions should go on strike as well.

I won’t say I considered it, because I didn’t, as part of having a weekly column for 9 years is that I’m trained to show up for you.

I’ve never missed a deadline, and don’t intend to start now.

However, while I considered writing a super-short column, (a mini-strike, if you will,) that obviously isn’t happening.

(500+ words so far.)

But, (you knew there would be a but, right,) instead, I’m coming at you with a promised column that does the next best thing: it provides direct access to a slate of diverse artists I met on Zoom earlier this summer.

I was reviewing portfolios for the school at the International Center of Photography in New York in early July, and as I wrote shortly thereafter, I saw some terrific and timely photography and art, all of which was made by women and men of color.

You know I’ve written many times, including recently, that I believe all voices in the photography world should be respected. Hell, a few years ago, (in this column) I rebranded myself as a Jewish-American, because I didn’t want to be known as a White Guy. (Ahead of my time, for sure.)

While I advocate against cutting out any particular group, (including my own,) I’ve also spent years championing work by female artists, and artists from a diversity of cultures and races whenever possible, because it’s the right thing to do, and it also affords you, the viewers, the chance to see things you would not otherwise.

A classic win-win.

So today, we’re going with “The Best Work I Saw at the ICP Online Portfolio Review,” and I’m sure you’ll dig these pictures.

Not surprisingly, most of the students I encountered were impacted by the pandemic in some way, including those who were in a 1 year program, but didn’t get to spend much time in NYC, or on campus.

As resourceful artists often do, they came up with elegant solutions, and I’ll share them with you now.

Normally, I say the artists are in no particular order, but today I’ll show them to you in the order I encountered the photographers that day.

We’ll begin with Danny Peralta, and I actually mentioned him in a previous column, as he works with diverse media, and his photographs were not what impressed me the most.

Danny is an educator and community developer from the South Bronx, in addition to being a talented artist, and he showed me a set of watercolor drawings that drew attention to the health effects of environmental pollution.

For whatever reason, eco art is often associated with white hippies, so I hadn’t seen many projects that directly tackled the issue from within a community of color.

Danny drew/painted a series about inhalers, as so many people in his community use them, due to asthma and other breathing issues due to pollution.

(I can’t breathe.)

It’s fantastic stuff, IMO.

 

 

Next, I met Zoe Golden-Johnson, who just finished her junior year of undergrad at ICP, having been in a joint-student program from St John’s University in Queens.

Due to the pandemic, Zoe was quarantining in Upstate New York, in a town near Poughkeepsie named Wappingers Falls.

Like many photographers during this strange time, (including me,) Zoe went on walks around her neighborhood, as her family had recently moved to a different part of the village, and it was all new to her. (And filled with creepy, late 19th C and early 20th C East Coast architecture.)

While at first, I told Zoe that this was not the most innovative of methodologies, a few photographs in, she showed me an image of a shadow puppet on the side of a green, siding-clad house.

It stopped me in my tracks, as it was created, rather than found, and it seemed like it had so much potential as a way of making photos.

“You should do a whole series of these,” I recommended.

Zoe smiled, and then a few images later, showed me an exquisite self-portrait, also in shadow, done in the same location.

I found it to be an exceptional picture, and hoped she’d continue working in that way. I also suggested it was brave, and a little risky, to use a stranger’s house, unless maybe it was her own home?

She confirmed it was, (no creeping necessary,) and I hope she continues working in that vein.

 

Next, I spoke to Madeline Mancini, who was in the exact same situation as Zoe, only 2500 miles away.

Madeline also finished her junior year at ICP, on loan from St. John’s, but was pandemic quarantining at her parents’ home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Ever the dorky New Mexican, when she said Las Vegas, I asked, “Nevada or New Mexico?”)

Madeline is into horror and suspense, weird and strange movies, and also looked at her neighborhood, and her immediate environment, trying to find the surreal and spectral in the mundane.

I’m always a sucker for normal-is-odd, so I liked this work immediately.

 

After a short break, I spoke with Violette Franchi, who spent a year at ICP after studying architecture in her native France.

Violette used her time in NYC wisely, as she learned about, and then devoted her time to exploring and photographing in Starrett City, the largest housing project in East New York, Brooklyn, which is one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the city.

While I often find myself suggesting to students that they try to mix up varied approaches to making their photographs, Violette needed no such encouragement.

She had made friends and contacts in the local community on her own, without any fixers, and used big cameras for the landscapes and establishment shots, smaller cameras when appropriate, and also mixed in video and photographs of found imagery and tv screens.

(Including images of junk mail and advertisements she found on the ground of the mail room, and shots of cheesy TV commercials pimping the development back in the 70’s.)

I found it to be a sophisticated and nuanced look at a place in time, (including the future, as she also has images of renderings of impending development,) and was seriously impressed with her drive, work ethic and talent.

A2 tower’s entrance, Starrett City, East New York, 2019. Starrett City is located on the southeast corner of the studied intersection.

View from the balcony of Jerry’s apartment, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Starrett City is the US nation’s largest federally-subsidized apartment complex. Starrett City contains 5,881 apartment units in 46 buildings, ranging from eleven to twenty stories high.

Laron and Bernard filling up their tank at Conoco gas station, East New York, 2020. Laron and Bernard are regular customers and live in East New York.

17th floor entrance doors, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Starrett City towers are all designed identically, with no designated communal spaces above the ground floor.

Archive from a TV Commercial advertising for Starrett City after its construction, 1979. Screenshot with added subtitles, 2020.

Syed, clerk at Conoco gas station, East New York, 2020. He lives with his wife and daughter in a shared house with his older brother Ali. Syed’s family is in the basement and Ali’s is upstairs. Ali and Syed emigrated from Pakistan with their parents in 1996.

Mail left out in one of the towers’ lobby, Starrett City, East New York, 2019. All the 46 towers have the same design and elements for their ground floors: two elevators in the lobby space, postboxes, a shared laundry room, the janitor’s premises and staircases.

Mackenzie, working at Ultimate Auto Parts, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. Mackenzie has worked at the used auto parts store for a year and a half. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Teenage girl, standing in Starrett City’s shared outdoor spaces, East New York, 2020.

Ultimate Auto Parts store, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, on the northwest corner of the studied intersection, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Tamara on her afternoon stroll, East New York, 2020. Tamara resides in a nursing home in front of Starrett City. East New York is a neighborhood with a large Russian elderly community. There are fifteen assisted living facilities and nursing home at a mile around Starrett City.

Margie, standing in her building’s lobby, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Margie is 90 years old, she was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in Starrett City for 15 years. Everybody calls her grandma in her tower.

Our Daily Bread, a given out, collected and scanned cover of a Bible, East New York, 2020.

Found, collected and scanned piece from a commercial brochure, Starrett City, East New York, 2020.

Ernesto, outside his building, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Ernesto moved in Starrett City in 1996 and said he loved it back then. « It used to be the best place in the universe in the 90’s. Now I’m trying to get out of here. I’m two years sober. »

An older resident walks back home with groceries, Starrett City, East New York, 2020.

Jarrell’s daughter in a shopping cart at the intersection, East New York, 2020. She wanted a ride to the shop. Jarrell works as an educator and him and his family live in Starrett City.

Shortie, working at Ultimate Auto Parts, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Shelter residents looking out the window at Oasis Motel, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2019. Oasis Motel is a men’s shelter located on the northwest corner of the studied crossroads. The shelter is facing Starrett City as well as the parking lot of NYC’s biggest Church, the Christian Cultural Center, soon to become a massive residential complex.

Parking lot of NYC’s biggest Church, the Christian Cultural Center, is located, East New York, 2020. The Church’s empty property is only full on Sundays. This lot will soon become the “Urban Village”, a massive residential complex that will face the current Oasis Motel shelter on the other side of the street.

Jerry, on his balcony on the 17th and last floor of Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Jerry was the first resident to move in his tower of Starrett City, 45 years ago. Jerry used to work as Starrett City’s postman and is now retired. He is divorced and his kids have left the apartment. Every day, he plays the numbers, resolves puzzles and volunteers at the same post office he has worked at for 20 years.

3D rendering of the future “Urban Village”, soon to be built on the Christian Cultural Center’s site, New York City’s biggest Church, East New York, 2020. The Church is located on the southwest corner of the studied intersection. This promised “innovative urban living” is promoting affordable housing when the units will be unaffordable to almost 4 out of 10 East New York families. The project comes from a partnership between a real-estate developer and the Church’s pastor Rev. AR Bernard. Image made by © Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU).

Archive from a TV Commercial advertising for Starrett City after its construction, 1979. Screenshot with added subtitles, 2020.

After Violette, coincidentally, came another young Frenchwoman who made work in Brooklyn: Tina Levy.

Tina, like Madeline, likes the surreal and bizarre, but her work shared far more in common with the Roger Ballen, black and white, aesthetic.

Tina had studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and was thrilled when I suggested she consider drawing and painting as well, (like Danny,) as that was where she felt her work was headed.

But I loved these photographs, which were made in her neighborhood and local environment in Brooklyn. (Greenpoint, where I lived back in the day.)

 

After Tina, I met Beverly Logan, who had completed an MFA at ICP, and had a very different process from everyone else.

Beverly had traveled extensively, and taken a lot of pictures in her life, and told me she had an archive of 250,000 images, which she searched for fragments to build collages.

Even in a digital age, these were laborious, as she made prints of the fragments, and then assembled real life pieces, rather than using Photoshop.

They screamed of Americana, and surrealism, but had a snappy, optimistic palette that seemed to contrast with these dark times.

I mentioned Patrick Nagatani’s “Nuclear Enchantment” to her, as her smart work made me think of my late teacher, and in general was super-impressed by what I saw.

 

Finally, (yes, finally) I met with Kechen Song, who was a Chinese national living in New York for his program. (Soon to move to Syracuse U to attend the prestigious MFA program there.)

He had barely left his apartment for months, during the pandemic, and told me he’d been wearing a mask for most of year, as he knew from China’s experience the chaos and death that was headed New York’s way.

Kechen had a few projects, including this mind-numbing and amazing video of taking and recording his temperature, over and over again, until his notebook went black.

The project I want to share, though, featured images he made by hacking, or mis-using his flatbed scanner, with only objects he found on his desk.

So many of these artists had their process, (and education) impacted by the pandemic, and used those constraints to fire up their creativity. This project is the perfect example of that, as everything came off of one desk, including the art-making equipment.

 

So I’ll leave you there, along with the reminder that if the NBA players can use their platforms to send a message, and I can show up to enlighten you on the regular, and all these artists can mine the pandemic for creative fuel, I hope you can do your best work, and make a difference too.

See you next week!

Jonathan Blaustein

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